After Stewart Downing enjoyed his 600th club career appearance against Sunderland on Saturday, we sat down with the 33-year-old for a look back at his remarkable career so far.
In this feature-length interview, the Boro man talks in-depth about his career, from early days with the Academy and breaking through into the first team, to England honours and returning to Teesside.
MFC: Stewy, you’ve now passed 600 club career appearances – a brilliant achievement.
I’m very pleased, it feels like it’s been a long time coming!
I’m over the moon with the achievement, but the next one is to keep playing games, and to try and reach 700.
MFC: Looking back to the start of your career, you came through Boro’s Academy as one of a talented crop of players along with the likes of James Morrison and Lee Cattermole.
It’s all gone so quick!
I was thinking about it the other day, I still remember those games with the young lads coming through.
I was a little bit older than those others that you mentioned, so I was one of the first.
You look back at those years, the early Steve McClaren era and there were a lot of young lads who came through. Not just numbers, there were quality players.
They were good times. I think we had a good mix in the squad, young hungry lads from the Academy mixed in with, older experienced players – some of them were superstars, real quality pros in that squad. We had a really good team and credit to Steve McClaren for giving us that chance.
He had worked with young players at Manchester United, and for us to hear when he came in that he was looking to the Academy was music to our ears.
As a young player you wanted to impress and straightaway you could see the changes, six or seven of us young lads were training with the first team for a year, 18 months, getting used to that environment before we even played a game.
MFC: Credit to the coaches in the Academy too, who had a big part to play.
Not only Dave Parnaby, but Mark Proctor who was a coach here for many years. I loved my time then, and you need in football is a chance.
MFC: That breakthrough came for you in a match away at Ipswich.
It was brilliant. I remember travelling to the game, and saying to my Dad – who goes to all the matches – there’s no point travelling all that way. I’m was still a young player, I’m probably 17th or 18th man at that point and just going for the experience.
We get to the ground, Steve McClaren names the team and I’m starting. Safe to say my Dad wasn’t happy about that one!
We lost the game but we played well on the night and it was unbelievable to line up with some of the players I’d grown up watching.
MFC: Making your 600th appearance against Sunderland was quite fitting, in a way, because going on loan up the road was what really kick-started your career.
I got a chance early on. I was still quite small and skinny, so I needed building up.
Steve McClaren was good in that way, he’d play me for a few games, leave me out, use me as a sub maybe.
Going to Sunderland was about gaining experience – I’d probably outgrown reserve football a bit and needed a pushing, and league football is the best way.
I went to a really good team at the time, which suited the way I played under Mick McCarthy.
It was a great learning curve for me, to play in front of big crowds and get ready for first team football at Boro.
MFC: When you did come back, it wasn’t long before we were heading to Cardiff for an incredible day in the club’s history. You didn’t get on the pitch but what an occasion nonetheless. What are your memories?
I remember coming back from that loan, and playing against Tottenham away in the earlier rounds of the League Cup. I played the second half in that one, I love it and it’s nice to have played my part.
Just to be involved on the day itself in Cardiff was unbelievable. People tend to forget, there were senior players who’d played every game who weren’t even on the bench, like Andrew Davies, Jonathan Greening and Colin Cooper. They’d done a lot to get us to the final and were unlucky to miss out. I had to hide my excitement a bit as a young player.
It was a great occasion for the whole club. It was a nervy game, especially late on when we were under pressure but big Schwarz [Mark Schwarzer] made some great saves.
After the game, the parade – at the time I probably took it for granted but looking back they were incredible scenes on Linthorpe Road and along those ways. I remember it like it was yesterday.
MFC: That day was catalyst for Boro’s European adventures, one of the best spells this club has ever had, and you became more and more involved as the seasons went on.
That season had been a big breakthrough for me, I was involved a lot more in the squad than before I’d been out on loan.
I went away that summer and told myself that the next season was my big one, I needed to kick on.
We had some quality players. Bolo Zenden had signed permanently so I knew I was in for a fight straightaway for my position.
I knew I had to get into the team that season, I was 19, 20, and you want to be playing games. It was a chance I had to take.
A bit of luck I had, and a bit of bad luck for another player was Gaizka Mendieta getting injured early on in the season. Bolo was given his shift in the middle and I naturally came in on the left wing, with Ray Parlour our on the right.
It worked great for us. The team had a nice balance, and Bolo played really well in the middle – I don’t think he’d played there a lot in his career but he took to it. He was good to me, too, he gave me a lot of service feeding me the ball out wide.
MFC: Into the following season, not only were there those incredible European nights, but we were competing on several different fronts, reaching the FA Cup semi-final, the League Cup quarter-final, with 64 games in total.
I don’t think we had a particularly big squad at that time either, there were a lot of young lads.
To keep going in the games we played and the energy we showed – we’d be playing every three days for months at a time.
Obviously we lost the UEFA Cup final but to even get there was special, people had written us off.
The teams we beat along the way, the way we did it, they were some of the best games of my career.
In the end we lost to a very good Sevilla team, some of their players went on to play at the very highest level and win the lot, the likes of Dani Alves. It wasn’t a 4-0 game – we went for it at the end and had it gone differently we could have won the game.
MFC: To do it once against Basel was one thing, but to come back and win again against Steaua Bucharest in the semi in the same way was astonishing looking back.
We did it once and everyone was saying it would never be done again, and a couple of weeks later it was happening!
Especially that Bucharest game, I remember that more, we were gone, dead and buried.
We’d lost away and were 2-0 down at home, and it wasn’t as though we were against were poor opposition they were a good team.
The team talk from Steve at half-time, he told us there was a final out there for us. If we wanted it we had to go out and earn it.
We let the shackles off a bit. I wouldn’t say we were a defensive team, but we were organised. I think we had five strikers on at one point. I had the full left wing to myself and James Morrison had the right.
We got a bit of luck but you need that along the way, and with the quality we had you always have a chance.
MFC: Before that European final, Steve McClaren fielded a team, with the exception of Malcolm Christie, comprised entirely of Teessiders.
Not only Academy players, but good players. It’s one thing producing numbers but they have to be good enough.
At that time we had a conveyor belt of players coming through who were all pushing each other.
There was a sense, with the likes of me and Stuart Parnaby who’d come through, that if you worked hard enough you’d get a chance.
That game at Fulham, they should have won – against Premier League opposition which would be some achievement with the club. I think all that team are making careers now somewhere in the game.
MFC: A number of those players, especially at youth level, came to represent England – and international honours were also in store for you around that time.
That’s what you dream of growing up as a boy, playing for England.
I didn’t think it would come as early as it did.
Left-wing had been a problem for England at that time, getting the balance, and I’d done well in those months.
Maybe it made it easier with me being left-footed but I still had to earn my place in the squad.
I was playing with some unbelievable players, Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard – an incredible experience for a young lad like I was and memories I’ll never forget.
MFC: Skipping ahead a few years now, when you did depart Boro for Aston Villa, even then you said that there was one eye on returning at some stage.
I left on a bit of a sour note, we were relegated and I had picked up an injury two or three games before the end and couldn’t play a part in trying to keep us in the league.
It was a really difficult season, and to go out like that and leave your hometown club like that wasn’t part of the plan.
But I always had it in the back of my mind, that if things went right I could come back.
It was good for me to go away, to experience different clubs and cultures and live in different areas. I really enjoyed it.
But off the back of a really good season with West Ham, the manager who had brought me in there had left, and I just thought the timing was right to come back and help the club get promoted, which we did.
MFC: As you say, you came back to a club who had just missed out in the Play-Offs and were pushing hard for promotion.
I looked at the Norwich game and saw a good team, and one who would push again.
After speaking to the Chairman and hearing his plans, and seeing the calibre of players coming in, players like David Nugent who’d been there and done it, I sensed if we add a few we would go up.
It was a good challenge, and something for me to achieve to get us back into the Premier League, a challenge I had to take on really.
MFC: That one season in the Premier League didn’t go to plan, and it was followed by a summer of uncertainty for you – but that must feel a long time ago now.
It does, but that’s football I guess. One minute you’re here, the next you could be gone.
Obviously, it was difficult. I thought with the new manager Garry Monk coming in I’d be given a chance, like any other player really, you’re there to impress.
That wasn’t to be, and that’s fair enough. But with my situation, there were clubs but nothing materialised and I was staying. I had a lot to think about, I had a baby on the way and that comes into it.
It was a difficult summer, I’ll be honest. Training with the Under-23s. I had to fight hard – I wouldn’t say to motivate myself, but as a 33-year-old player, training with the Under-23s is difficult.
But I thought, I’m going to prove him wrong.
I trained hard, I played. The season didn’t begin as well as we wanted and I was given a chance, and that’s all I really asked for from the start.
MFC: With a new manager coming in for the new year in Tony Pulis – he’s already spoken a little of his admiration for you. Having proved the last manager wrong with your performances, you’re hoping to prove this one right.
That’s what football is all about. It’s a challenge to prove your worth in this team because things can change very quickly.
I’ve nearly signed for this manager a few times in the past, so I know what he’s about and what he expects.
I was excited when he came through the door because I believe he can get us promoted. He knows what he wants and he’s demanding, but that’s what you need.
MFC: 600 games in and the ambition is as clear as ever, to get out of this division.
That’s what it was when I first rejoined, to get promoted and stay in the Premier League, to stabilise.
I think looking at the manager’s track record, especially what he did at Stoke, we’ve got the best man to do that. We’re in good hands.
The players know what he wants and we were drilled from day one, but he’s got time and I think you’ll see over the course of the season how difficult we’ll be to beat.